Heinrich’s Garden


Been thinking about our daughter Mary’s apartment. Because war damage essentially leveled the north-central German city of Düsseldorf, the city arose from the rubble in a surfeit of architectural gems.

I’m guessing here but I’d venture that most of the 650,000 residents of this “Village on the Düssel River” are apartment dwellers. Their homes range from microscopic to huge, with the rent equally diverse. Mary was lucky to find a single room + kitchenette + bathroom, where she could stash her books, full-size piano keyboard, clothes galore, TV and music equipment, with just room for a table at the window. Twin beds over there and a fold-out couch over here permit visits from Mom and Dad.

Mary carries a monstrous backpack and handbag back and forth from the opera house where she works, and does little more than sleep there during the week. When she has a couple of days off, she takes the train to Gelsenkirchen, where she and Rainer live between gigs.

When Dave and I were in Düsseldorf between side trips last fall, we walked to the Rhine, read a lot, sometimes fixed lunch or dinner so Mary had a meal all ready for her. Pretty basic.

So it’s no surprise that my reporter’s itch began to need scratching and I found myself wondering about the other occupants of nearby buildings. Mary’s place is near where her apartment building and another form a checkmark at the corner of her street and the next. It was hard to correlate the two buildings’ relationship to each other when you were outside on the street. There was, however, no lack of things to see and wonder about.

I never saw her two nearest neighbors. Each apartment has a little patio off the kitchen, with ceiling-high walls that provide privacy, and a waist-high wall opening toward the common courtyard. This tiny outdoor space did allow for a view toward the more modern buildings along the Rhine. I’d hang dishcloths out there on her drying rack and that gave me a legitimate reason to be outside looking at whatever there was to see. My daughter was puzzled by my nosiness, but I’m curious about people. And one in particular in her neighborhood.

This is a working class neighborhood, with few people about in the daytime. I soon noticed the man who lives in the building behind us. Mid-seventies, I’d say, very thin and tall, and although I never got close enough to see them, I believe his eyes are a piercing light blue. My hunch about the garden out back provided depth to my story about Heinrich. I gave him that name. Plus the notion that he was recently widowed.

Behind each building there is a long narrow strip of vegetation. Judging by the different levels of care, ranging from a vine and a few small fruit trees, to lounge chairs and potted roses in full bloom, I suspect the landlords allow residents to divide the parcels among themselves, with some not interested at all. There were a couple of cats that had the run of the place, and a parking spot or two inside the walls.

Every “garden” had a little something to suggest care and a bit of work. Except for one. Heinrich’s.

His was a second-floor apartment with no courtyard access from his apartment, but I did see him come out of a ground-level door, which told me he had to go clear to the basement to use the common hallway and exit door.

About once a week Heinrich brought wet laundry out to his patio to dry on a rack. He checked on it regularly, and took in whatever dried as the day went on.

Unlike his next door neighbor. Whatever he hung out on Sunday was still there until Saturday, when he took it in and hung a new batch. I saw him only once, a tall, athletic-looking young man, obviously single. I had a theory – no, no, one fictitious construction at a time.
One day I noticed Heinrich standing on his tiny balcony, his hands on the wall, leaning out for a better view of his neighborhood. He didn’t spend a lot of time, but returned later in the week with a rake, clippers and other garden tools. He propped them against the wall and there they remained until next morning.

Heinrich’s patch of “green,” I called it earlier, was totally unkempt. Scruffy-looking grass and weeds here and there, no flowers or shrubs, utterly devoid of tender loving care.

But no longer. After struggling with weeds by hand, the gardener evidently rented a tiller and went back and forth across his little patch until the weeds surrendered.

We packed our things and came home at about this point in Heinrich’s gardening career, and Mary has not commented on it except to say he spends a lot of time outdoors, puttering as gardeners do.

At least I think he has found solace. A man alone pouring his energy and memories into a little patch of grass, perhaps muttering to a blue-eyed blonde with a dazzling smile that only he can see – there has to be a story here.

Mary answers my question: “My neighbor never got any further than the grass and circle of bushes that you saw. The remains of a long firecracker lay there for two months. I could never figure out why it took someone until March to remove it.”

I like my version better.